Sunday, June 8, 2014

Predicting the Unpredictable

 After a rare weekend off (as opposed to an off weekend), the Neshanock returned to action on Sunday entertaining the Elkton Eclipse of Elkton, Maryland for two games at historic Gebhardt Field in Clinton, New Jersey.  Arriving early, I got a quick sense of just how historic this pristine setting was as base ball has been played there since about 1903, but it was even more historic for me and my family on a personal level.  My father, Hank Zinn, coached base ball and other sports at nearby High Bridge High School in the late 1930's, winning the county baseball championship in 1939.  I quickly ascertained that Clinton High School's team played at Gebhardt so that my father must have coached there at one time or another.   

Picture of High Bridge's 1939 Hunterdon County Championship baseball team, Hank Zinn is standing on the far right

Unfortunately the day's matches were any thing but historic.  The first contest was played under 1864 rules and the Neshanock highlights were winning the bat toss, my catching a foul ball (self-preservation kicked in) and a fine running catch by Scott "Snuffy" Hengst.   The only other thing worth mentioning in the 24-6 loss was a two hit performance by Ken "Tumbles" Mandel.  Mercifully the game was called after seven innings and after a brief break, the second match got underway using 1873 rules.  One of the major differences between 1864 and 1873 games is that fair balls have to be caught on the fly so 1873 matches tend to be more high scoring.  Surprisingly, however, the second match was lower scoring with the Neshanock actually leading 4-3 going to the bottom of the third.  Elkton is a fine club, however, and they eventually got their offense going as well as playing outstanding defense and won 14-6.  Although the run output was the same, Flemington hit much better with Dave "Illinois" Harris leading the way with two hits as well as pitching several innings.  The Neshanock defense was also much improved in this game especially the outfield play where Chris "Sideshow" Nunn made three fine catches.  The two losses left the Neshanock at 5-10 for the season heading into next week's matches with the Gotham Club of New York at the Howell Living History Farm

High Bridge High School baseball team - Hank Zinn is in the second row in the bow tie which presumably he didn't wear during games

 Given the Neshanock's defensive performance the past few weeks, the meltdown in the first contest was surprising, but if it does nothing else (and it does a whole lot else), base ball teaches us to expect the unexpected.  While that should be common knowledge, many still seem surprised when player and team performance doesn't conform to expectations.  A few weeks ago I wrote about the Irvington Club's 1866 upset of the mighty Brooklyn Atlantics, but anyone who thought the Irvington Club would go from one success to another that year got a rude awakening. The upstart "country club" did follow their upset win with a decisive 37-22 win over the Eckford Club, also of Brooklyn, but then apparently fearing no one, the Irvingtons next traveled to Philadelphia to challenge the mighty Athletic Club.  Coming off a 15-3 season, the Philadelphia team had won seven straight 1866 matches including the previously mentioned 92-2 thrashing (all adjectives are inadequate) of the Alert Club of Danville, Pennsylvania.  Even the most pessimistic Irvington player or fan must have believed their club couldn't do any worse and they were right, but not by much, as Irvington lost by the equally hard to believe score of 77-9.

 New York Clipper - July 28, 1866

While devastating doesn't begin to describe the humiliation of giving up a 25 run inning and losing by 68, it was only one game and although Irvington also lost the return match, it was by the much more respectable score of 18-11.  However, Irvington's first season as a senior club continued to be up and down and when the club traveled to Capitoline Grounds in Brooklyn for the September return match with the Atlantics, optimism about the New Jersey club's chances was probably in short supply.  Since being upset by the Irvington in June, the Atlantics had lost only once and by the September 24th rematch both Dickie Pearce and Fred Crane were back in the Atlantic lineup.  With over three months to think about being both beaten and outsmarted by the upstarts from Irvington, the Brooklyn club was doubtless ready for revenge.

Dickey Pearce

Perhaps the still defending champions were a little too anxious for their own good as they failed to score in their first two at bats and trailed Irvington 2-0 coming to bat in the third.  When the first two Atlantic strikers went out, at least some on both benches and in the crowd must have wondered if history was about to repeat itself.  They need not have worried as aided by some poor work by Irvington catcher, Thomas Buckley, the Atlantics erupted for six runs and added eight more in the fourth for a 14-3 lead.  Irvington did rally for five runs in the bottom of the seventh, but it was far too little, far too late and the Atlantics got their revenge with an easy 28-11 victory.  Unnecessary as it appeared however, Irvington was still entitled to a third and deciding match which was reportedly going to be played at a neutral site in Hoboken.

Capitoline Grounds, Brooklyn

As the season moved towards its conclusion, the Atlantics were probably (and understandably) more worried about beating the Athletics of Philadelphia than the third match with Irvington.  The Philadelphia club's hopes for a perfect season ended with a 27-17 defeat by the Atlantics on October 15th, but the Philadelphians returned the favor, 31-12, a week later.  A final match would decide that issue, but first, the Atlantics had to take of business against both the Eureka Club of Newark and the Irvington Club, their only other losses of the season.  Brooklyn dispatched the Eureka on September 27th and October 25th so the only remaining obstacle to a winner take-all match with the Athletics was the October 29th "conquering game" with Irvington.

Union Grounds, Brooklyn

In the end the match was not played at Hoboken, but instead at the Union Grounds in Brooklyn.  Given the Irvington Club's inconsistent performance, the Clipper indicated it was "fully expected that the Irvingtons would be as badly punished" as they were in their first visit to Brooklyn.  Because of these low expectations and "the high charge" for admission (somehow related to the division of the gate receipts between the two clubs) only 1500 made their way into the grounds.  They were rewarded with what the Clipper called "one of  the most closely contested and exciting games of the season."  That was, of course, a subjective opinion, but even at almost 150 years distance, the match was very different from most games of the era.  After a scoreless first, the Atlantics, again striking first, tallied twice in the second and led 2-0 going to the bottom of the fourth.  Irvington then tied it at 2-2 and tallied once more in the bottom of the fifth for a 3-2 lead in an usually low scoring affair.

Fred Crane, 2nd baseman of the Brooklyn Atlantics

Irvington's lead was short lived, however, as the Atlantics scored twice in the sixth and once in the seventh to lead 5-3.  Although shutout since the fifth, Irvington blanked the Atlantics in their last two at bats and still trailed by only two runs as they came to bat for the last time.  Even though the Atlantics were within three outs of victory, there was no shortage of "nervous anxiety" on the Brooklyn side since three runs for Irvington would cost the Atlantics the championship without even playing the Athletics.  Reinder Wolters led off by grounding out to second, but Charles Sweasy followed with a single through short bringing up Andy Leonard who blasted a triple, scoring Sweasy, and moments later, Leonard crossed the plate himself on a passed ball.  With the score tied at 5-5 and only one out, the Atlantics were on the brink of an even greater disaster against the same "country club" who so embarrassed them in June.  Fortunately for Brooklyn, pitcher Tommy Pratt bore down and retired Michael and Hugh Campbell without incident so that "tie game was the cry from the scorer's desk," leading to what was reportedly the first extra inning game in the history of the Atlantics.

New York Clipper - November 10, 1866

Base ball tends to be unforgiving when a team fails to take advantage of an opportunity to close out a game and such was the case with Irvington.  Fred Crane led off the tenth "with a high ball to right field which the wind took clean over the building" for a home run.  With the gates now partially open, the Atlantics aided by "wild pitching and loose support behind" tallied six more times and won 12-6.  In the end because of disputes between the Athletics and Atlantics, the third and deciding match was never played so Brooklyn retained its championship.  For the Irvington Club, the match marked the end of a season no one could have envisioned at the beginning.  After what was arguably the biggest  upset of the decade, somewhat marred by an opposition without its full lineup, "the country club" lost to the Athletics by 68 runs and then took the only team to beat the Athletics to the very brink of defeat  In some ways, Irvington's November loss was even more impressive than its June victory since this time, they went head-to-head with the Atlantics best and more than held their own or as the Sunday Mercury put it "the Irvingtons showed themselves to be splendid players, and well earned a victory, if they did not achieve it." 

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